What do you consider a ‘baby dog'?

Is this label given to dogs of a certain age? Is it given to them until they've reached a certain achievement? Are they the baby until you get another new dog?
Even if you've never used it yourself, I'm sure you've heard a variety of uses for the term ‘baby dog', such as

  • “That is such a baby dog mistake!”
  • “That was such great work, especially for a baby dog!”
  • “This is going to be tricky for my baby dog”
  • “Can you believe my baby dog just won the class?!”

And the list goes on. I'm sure you've heard or have used some sentence similar to the ones above. I have to ask though:

Is this term serving you?

What I mean is, does calling your dog a “baby dog” help your training? Does labeling a problem behavior like popping out at the 10th weave pole a “baby dog mistake” help you move forward?

I don't think it does help you move forward.

Sticking to the weave pole example, what would help you move forward with your training? Data helps.
Did it happen once? Ignore it.
Happened twice? Under what circumstances?
Did you miscue something or does the dog not understand the cue?
Then move forward with a training plan before asking the dog to do 12 weave poles in a trial (or long sequence) again.

The important thing to remember is that it's a lot easier to train something than to wait for the dog to no longer be a “baby dog”, or to figure it out over time.

Experience does not replace training.

I'm not saying we can't call our dogs babies forever. Let's face it; Smack (who is now 11) will always be my baby! However, I want to try really hard to not let labels like “baby dog” affect how I asses my dog's skills and how I objectively measure progress.

What I want to focus on is if I have prepared my dog for the task I am asking him to do or not. Before I train a new skill, I ask myself:

  • Do I have the ability (mechanics/plan) to teach this new skill?
  • Does my dog have the required concepts needed to learn this new skill?
  • Is my dog mentally mature enough to learn this new skill?
  • Is my dog physically mature enough to learn this new skill?

If you have all yesses, train the thing! If you have a no, stop and make a plan for turning that no into a yes, even if it just means waiting another month.

Age Appropriate Agility Training

Each dog is unique. I have coached hundreds of teams and individualized the training for every single one of them. While the stepping stones to the finished product are essentially the same, the timeline is different for every dog and the approach I take in training also varies a lot with each team I work with.

The things to consider are these:

  • Dog's mental maturity
  • Dog's physical maturity
  • Handler's training skill level
  • Handler's time available to train

I believe that puppies can and should be learning ‘agility' related items at a young age, but not at a level that is too tasking to their mind or body. And that is no cookie cutter recipe. I have worked with dogs that have been mentally capable of complex tasks from a very young age (4-5 months) and I currently own a dog that has a mental maturation that differs depending on the environment he is in! We just don't know what the dog is capable of until we ask them!

Same goes for physical maturity. My border collie, Smack, was still growing at the age of 15 months, and he didn't start jumping full height until he was 18+ months because of that, but his younger sister, Shock, stopped growing at around 6 months of age. She could handle more physical activity, impact, and repetition than he could at the same age.

Handler's skill level when it comes to training adds an extra twist on things. Learning goes much slower when there are two learners! If you, the human learner, have to first learn the mechanics of training a skill, it will take you a little bit longer to train the canine learner that same skill. While an experienced trainer on their 2nd (3rd, 4th, 5th…) dog, already has those mechanical skills down and can go straight to teaching the canine learner and progress those skills along more quickly.

The same goes for a handler with more time and resources to train. Working from home typically means more time available to train. Retired? more time to train. Full time job and two small children? Less time to train.

Your individual situation is unique and will likely change with each dog you raise and train. It doesn't say anything about you as a person if your two year old dog can or can't complete a twenty obstacle Masters level course.

Base your training benchmarks on what is possible and fair for your dog and yourself. Take into consideration your dog's mind, your dog's body, your own skill level, and the amount of time you have available for training when mapping our your training plans. You will get there in your own time, in your own way. Throw feelings of comparisons or made up benchmarks of “your dog should be doing “X” by “this age” and “you shouldn't do “x” until he's “this age” right out the window, and work at the pace that is best for your team.  

Most importantly, enjoy training your dog.

Megan has started a beta group for her online Puppy Training mentorship – a complete guide of agility behaviors broken down into appropriate steps for dogs of any age/maturity level from first learning how marker cues to entering your first novice competition. Want to learn more? Contact Megan today!